SEVEN SPRINGS — A public, North Carolina enterprise that has begun its second century serving 18.8 million customers at 39 locations with an operating budget of $38.9 million released its annual report to its 10 million stake holders June 29.

North Carolina State Parks Director Mike Murphy described 2016—the year in which the state park system celebrated its 100th anniversary—as a “wonderful and busy” period. Murphy said “we had record-shattering visitation at many of our parks as well as for the system as a whole and we enjoyed events at across the state to celebrate,” Murphy wrote in an email Monday morning.

According to statistics compiled in the 28-page annual report, N.C. Parks attracted more than 18.8 million visitors who hiked, swam, boated, learned or merely relaxed in its 39 parks and recreation areas encompassing more than 230,000 acres throughout the state parks system.

The natural beauty of the parks is one of the reasons many tourists select North Carolina for their family vacations. The Wright family from Indianapolis, Ind., chose to spend a day out of their summer vacation at Hammocks Beach State Park and nearby Bear Island for some fun in the sun on Sunday. Greg Wright said “His family loves it here” as he and his wife, Lynn and their two children rode the state ferry across the Intracoastal Waterway on its journey to Bear Island. “The people are so nice and the smell of salt air that you can’t get back home,” Wright said.

Murphy feels the “excitement of the centennial raised awareness of our parks and their great value to our state including their impact on our quality of life and economy. The celebrations brought together life-long visitors to our parks as well as new visitors that have just begun to explore them,” Murphy wrote.

According to an Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina study, direct visitor spending totaled $22.9 billion in 2016.

And while tourists such as the Wright’s circle their calendars months in advance before embarking on their North Carolina vacation, spontaneity adds immediate adventure and state parks provide the perfect venue to achieve that goal. Amy Eller and Beth Bakke of Durham were looking for something different during their weekend at the beach and settled on spending time on Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park.

“We just love all the natural beauty and the history of the island, Eller said.

Visitors and residents of Eastern North Carolina and the coastal plain have several state parks from which to choose and within an easy drive. From Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach to Hammocks Beach near Swansboro and Carolina Beach or inland parks such as Cliffs of the Neuse and Goose Creek, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts have several options available offering a myriad of activities.

 

Murphy said the parks are continuing to try and improve the visitor’s experience.

“We added two exciting programs last year in honor of our centennial--our Passport program and the 100 Mile Challenge, both of which have exceeded our expectations in inspiring and engaging the public in all our parks have to offer.” Murphy wrote.

The Passport program is a way to keep track of park visits. Visitors obtain a park passport and each time they make an initial visit to a park, they receive a stamp in the booklet much like an international traveler gets their documents stamped at customs. Prizes are awarded to visitors who receive more than 10 different stamps. The 100 Mile Challenge is a health and wellness program encouraging people to complete an aggregate of 100 miles of hiking, walking, paddling or practically any suitable ambulatory method of traversing state parks. The program is an attempt to showcase the park’s 1,200 miles of hiking trails including the 600 miles of the Mountain-to-the-Sea Trail.

The annual report indicates the state made significant land acquisitions in 2016 totaling “2,758 acres in 27 transactions at 15 units of the state park system,” including 290 acres at Hammocks Beach State Park on the mainland portion of the park.

The park system received $75 million infusion from the voter approved $2 billion ConnectNC Bond referendum which will help fund 45 state parks projects across the state,” according to the annual report.

Murphy said the park’s goals for 2017 include “expansion of the NC State Parks system and continuing work on the projects funded by the Connect NC Bond program. The NC General Assembly recently passed HB 353--State Parks Expansion--which authorized three new state natural areas and directs us to conduct a feasibility study for a possible new state park on the Black River.

First-time visitors continue to enter parks every day. Ingrid Brown who lives minutes away from Cliffs on the Neuse brought her son Rhett, 3 to the park’s spring-fed lake Monday morning. The mother and son had the entire swimming complex to themselves despite warm sunny skies and clear, cool water. “I’ve live within five minutes of this park and this is our second time here. I need to come more often,” Brown said. High above the lake at the park’s 90-foot overlook, first-time visitor and rising West Craven Senior Alicia Heath from Cove City was posing for her senior portrait before amateur photographer Victoria Heldreth. Heldreth says she loves nature. “This is my happy place,” Heldreth said Monday morning as she worked her subject using the Neuse River as her backdrop.

As the park system enters its second century Murphy says the division’s “primary goals continue to be good stewards of the lands and waters we manage and great hosts to our visitors.

A copy of the 2017 N.C. State Parks Annual Report is available www.ncparks.gov/newsroom.

Daily News Reporter Mike McHugh can be reached at 910-219-8455 or email mike.mchugh@jdnews.com.